I’m Highly Suspect Of Myself
August 1, 2017
I had lunch sometime back with an old friend I hadn’t seen in years. Both oddballs in high school, we’d dreamed of baking bread together when we graduated, raising sheep, and starting a commune in rural Vermont. She’d do the wool spinning and the tapestry weaving. I’d make the soup and run the takeout restaurant. Comparing myself to her now, I find myself a little embarrassed. She’s become the type of person we’d promised to be. While I’ve become someone unrecognizable.
I know that as people we’re designed to evolve and change. But, I’ve tried on personas like other people try on jeans.
Here’s just the short list of who I’ve been: feminist, Muslim, housewife, wannabe hippie, Asian scholar, Buddhist, Lutheran, yoga devotee, English tutor, Iranian citizen, mother, chemist, introvert, extrovert, wallflower, someone funny. I’ve sold designer dresses, photocopiers, hazardous waste removal services, dating services, and industrial silica. I’ve got a chemistry degree, a Master’s in writing, a real estate license, and a teaching certificate. Frankly, I’ve worn more hats than the Village People.
I marvel at my own inconsistency. I have friends who’ve worked the same job for twenty-five years. Friends who’ve been married to their spouse for just as long. Once, I may have judged this sort of staid behavior as suburban, boring even. If only to buttress my own ego. To justify my own schizophrenia. And while I don’t like appearing completely unstable– Up until five years ago, I hadn’t stayed in any one job more than two and a half years,and I’ve already mentioned the gruesome divorces– the real problem I have is that so many of my identities weren’t based on preoccupations. They were on loan from my men.
I think a lot about the notion of authenticity. What is really me? What belongs to someone else?
My late thirties were an interesting time. My children were older. I had no husband. For the first time in my life I had only to please myself. I found my passion for running and writing. I discovered that yoga had a way of calming my soul. I realized I liked Indian food and throwing dinner parties and Jack Russell terriers.
Walt and I often give talks on our trips to Denali. We show slides of the 5-gallon paint can we crapped in, the 80-lbs packs we carried, the waist-high snow and the blistering winds. We talk about the avalanches and the crevasses and the three-thousand-foot drops.
I get a lot of questions about whether I enjoy this or not. Did I climb mountains before? Have I always been adventurous? And I must admit the questions make me nervous because I’m highly suspect of myself. I explain that there are plenty of things about climbing that I enjoy. The unreal sense of accomplishment. The great friends that I’ve made along the way. Vast tracts of space to let my mind roam. And there are those things, not to sugar coat it, I just don’t dig. Dealing with heavy loads. Smelling and looking like roadkill. The blatant fear, from time to time, that I’m going to die.
And, sure, I’d gone off the beaten path and lived in Iran. Reckless and adventurous, however, aren’t the same thing. And, sure, I was a good athlete before this gig. Running a marathon and scaling North America’s tallest mountain, however, are two totally different beasts.
How did a nice girl like me end up on Denali? Afraid of heights, basically lazy, my idea of a perfect day involves a glass of Cabernet and my favorite book. None of this adds up.
Do I climb mountains for myself, or do I do it for Walt?
Who was I, really, before I ever wanted to please a man?
When I was ten I read a book named My Side of The Mountain . Written by Jean Craighead George in 1959, it told the tale of a young boy who ran away from home to live in the Catskill Mountains. With only a penknife, a ball of cord, an ax, $40, and some flint, he had to rely on his ingenuity and on the resources of the land to survive. What I remember best is the home he’d made by hollowing out a tree. Cozy, he hid away in the huge Hemlock from people and brutal winter storms.
As an unhappy child, the book had appealed to me. I longed to escape my home, where I felt like a burden to my parents, where I was vulnerable because my father seemed so utterly resentful. I fancied the notion of making pancakes from acorns, of eating cattails, of catching and smoking my own fish. I studied the various drawings—how to make a fish hook, a bed from ash slats, a trap for animals—and imagined living off the land, completely independent. A veritable survival manual, I tromped around the back woods—all quarter acre of measly birches—with it looking for the type of leaves useful for boiling water in. Tucked away in my room, I saved pennies in a jar for my impending break.
No doubt, if I’d read Krakauer’s Into the Wild at that point, been handed a bus ticket, my bones would be blanching on some Alaskan plain right now.
Should take my childhood love for this book as proof? That mountain adventure isn’t Walt’s idea, it’s a long-buried inclination that came from that single source?
I’d like to think that My Side of the Mountain was responsible for planting the seeds of adventure in me. I’m just not sure. At ten years of age, I also wanted to be an actress, wear ball gowns like Cinderella, blow glass, ride my bike all the way to Massachusetts, and join the Partridge Family.
While I’ve blown glass once or twice, ridden a bike to Massachusetts, and worn some fairly attractive dresses, I can’t act my way out of a paper box, and David Cassidy still refuses my calls.
Maybe who and what I am will never be clear-cut.
Maybe some people, like me, are born with the impulse to try on everything for size.
Maybe I would never have climbed a mountain if I hadn’t married Walt.
Maybe Walt would never have ran a marathon if he hadn’t married me.
Maybe all of us are composites of the most important people in our lives and of those really rare books.
Maybe that’s OK.